As the 88th Academy awards kicked off, everyone in the Dolby Auditorium appeared to be holding their collective breath in anticipation of host Chris Rock taking Hollywood to task over its lack of diversity. He wasted no time in forcing them to exhale as he entered the stage announcing snidely that the show’s introductory photo montage had “at least 15 black people” in it. He then coined the Oscars “the White People’s Choice Awards.” So began his attack on #OscarsSoWhite.
While the room laughed at his opening jibes, the titter sounded uneasy; as cameras panned across the auditorium, reactions appeared generally a bit muted or reserved until the realization struck that the home audience could see them. The audience acted like a group of miscreants pulled into the principal’s office knowing exactly what they were in trouble for, but curbing their reaction as they waited to see how much trouble they were in.
They were in for a whole lot more from Rock, who let the barbs fly, noting that “if they nominated hosts, I would not even get this job. You’d all be watching Neil Patrick Harris right now.” Standing on the stage, a black man in a white tuxedo (which seemed an intentional visual delineation to highlight his blackness in the sea of white faces in black tuxedos) reminded the attendees that even though he is one of them, he is not the same.
Importantly and notably, he did not shy away from publicly calling Hollywood — and by extension, the stars, movie heads, and power brokers that attend Hollywood’s self-congratulatory night–racist right to their perfectly made up faces: “Is Hollywood racist? You gotta go at that the right way. Is it burning cross racist? No … it ain’t the racist that you’ve grown accustomed to. Hollywood is sorority racist. It’s like ‘We like you, Ronda, but you’re not a Kappa.’”
Even after these direct hits, he didn’t let up. Rock got to the heart of the matter — why was there an uproar over the absence of people of color at this awards show rather than 10, 30 or even 50 years ago (because assuredly, the Oscars were just as white back then). He suggested that back then, even though the paucity of black and brown faces was even greater, African-American were dealing with other serious problems at that time: “We had real things to protest; you know, we’re too busy being raped and lynched to care about who won best cinematographer. You know, when you’re grandmother’s swinging from a tree, it’s really hard to care about best documentary foreign short.”
And in that moment, the reason for the fury at this year’s ceremony crystallized. Not much has really changed; it should be unfathomable that black lives are still repudiated, that things like Charleston and Ferguson and Baltimore are even possible in 2016. And that’s why this Oscar’s snub of actors of color set off the firestorm it did. Because people are still fighting the same fight for diversity, equality and opportunity, not just in Hollywood, but throughout America; what was happening in 1950 is still happening.
Rock’s anecdote about a fundraiser for President Obama reveals why Hollywood’s racism seems so painful and insurmountable: “You know, as they’re setting up the picture you get a little moment with the president. I’m like, ‘Mr. President, you see all the writers and producers and actors? They don’t hire black people and they are the nicest white people on earth. They’re liberals. Cheese!’ ”
If in a presumed liberal bastion of acceptance, tolerance, and artistic freedom, people of color are not afforded equal opportunity, recognition and reward, how likely will it be found it anywhere else in our country? In Hollywood’s lens, racism seems inexorable. That’s what Rock brought into focus in his Oscar monologue.
All photos are screen grabs from YouTube.
Lisa Perez Tighe has been an attorney, writer and a professor. She attended the University of Notre Dame and New York University School of Law. A native of the Bronx, Lisa currently resides outside of Boston with her husband and four children.